OF THE EASTER EGG: ANECDOTES AND ETYMOLOGIES

Once a ‘heathen’ token of fertility and (re)birth (or so we are told – speculations by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century or Jacob Grimm in the 19th, now taken as gospel, may indeed be no more than speculation) appropriated by Christianity as a symbol of resurrection, nothing could be more familiar than an egg at Easter-time. More obscure are the early history of egg-giving and the very ancient origins of the word itself… 

 

Image result for little girls painting eggs

 

 Long ago it was a custom in northern England and Scotland to give decorated hardboiled eggs as presents for Easter, just as folk still do in Catholic and Orthodox Europe and elsewhere. These little gifts, typically hand-painted in vivid colours, were known variously as ‘paste-eggs’, ‘pace-eggs’ or ‘past-eggs’, the first component being a corruption of Latin paschalis, relating to Passover or Easter, rendered in earlier Englishes by the  adjectives ‘paschal’ or ‘pasch’. The terms might alternatively have been borrowed from just across the channel, perhaps from Dutch paasche eyren or Frisian peaske aaien. Dyeing or painting eggs, however, is a custom that predates ‘western’ or Christian practice. Very ancient traditions from many parts of the world involve the communal decoration of eggs at different times of the year, in Persia for example at the Nowruz (‘new day’) festival, marking the spring equinox and celebrated for the last two thousand years.

Image result for Nowruz painted eggs

 

Old Easter traditions, some true, some perhaps true and many almost certainly embellished (pun intended), were described by John Brand in his Popular Antiquity of 1841:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WJM9AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=brands+popular+antiquity+easter+eggs&source=bl&ots=ya4uX85_0D&sig=MSw3N9LT_uN5LoSNPcf8-8U4MzQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjhnqigmYraAhVJ6xQKHedmACkQ6AEIRjAH#v=onepage&q=brands%20popular%20antiquity%20easter%20eggs&f=false

The first reference specifically to ‘Easter eggs’ is by John Knox in his 1572 History of the Reformation in Scotland. This tells of ‘gifts’ bestowed in a very different sense, when in Edinburgh a Catholic priest was captured and tormented: ‘Himself fast tyed to the said Crosse, where he tarried the space of one hour; During which time, the boyes served him [i.e pelted him] with his Easter egges.’

We can perfectly understand the word Knox uses, but students of the history of the English language will be familiar with another anecdote, recounted by the printer William Caxton in his Eneydos (a translation of Virgil’s Aeneids) of 1490. He described a group of northern English merchants en route to Holland whose ship was becalmed on the Thames.  One of them went ashore to buy a meal from a local woman: ‘And specially he aksyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understood hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue ‘eyren’. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym well.’

 

Image result for caxton eggs text

 

Northern English dialect had adopted the word egges from Old Norse, while southern and eastern dialects used Old English eyren. Both are descendants of the Proto-Germanic *ajją which itself comes from Proto-IndoEuropean*h₂ōwyóm. This may be formed from a root-word for bird,*awi-, so settling once and for all the question of which came first. It is of course also the ancestor of Latin ovum and its derivations in Italian (uovo), Spanish (huevo) and French (oeuf) as well as in Greek ōión, Old Church Slavonic aja, Russian jajco, Breton ui and Welsh wy. Our modern egg is cognate with modern Icelandic and Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg and Danish æg. Modern German ei is closer to the Old English version.

Amusingly, there have been folk etymologies (that is, fake etymologies) for egg put forward by mischievous or deluded ‘experts’ in the past. One silly claim is that our word is related to ‘ego’ – and that this is somehow a theory endorsed by Sigmund Freud. The dramatist John Lyly in his Galatea comedy of 1588 plays with the notion that eggs are enticingly golden in colour and are ‘tried in the fire’ just like gold, for which they could be a symbol or synonym. Like gold, too, they are incentives ‘to frolic’ as they ‘are a thing that doth egg on’.

That jaunty phrase to ‘egg someone on’ (first attested in1566) in the sense of urging someone to do something, especially something risky or offensive, in fact has a different history, deriving from the Middle English verb eggen, from Old Norse eggja (to incite). The base is again a noun, egg, but this time meaning the edge, of, for example a blade or a cliff, from Proto-Germanic *agjō, from Proto-IndoEuropean *h₂eḱ- (sharp, pointed), so the goading or provoking here involves pushing someone nearer or over a boundary (though some think it’s pushing with the figurative or literal edge of a sword). Lexicographers all insist that the expression ‘over-egg the pudding’ comes from this sense, supposedly referring to excessive mixing or beating, rather than – more logically – from the idea of adding too many eggs to the mixture and ruining its texture.

 

 

In the 18th and 19th centuries darning eggs (made of stone or wood and used to fill out a garment being mended) and egg-shaped trinket or needle boxes for adults became popular; the egg-shaped toy containers which were given to children at Easter were usually made of tin, sometimes of cardboard covered with velvet and satin, and filled with miniature gifts or sweets. The first chocolate Easter eggs were created in France and Germany in the early 19th century and were solid, as the technology required for hollow shells was not yet in place. The first (dark) chocolate egg produced in the UK was sold by J.S Fry of Bristol in 1873: John Cadbury followed in 1875 and by 1905 was mass-producing hollow milk chocolate eggs, often filled with sugared almonds. In a reversal in 2017 The Solid Chocolate Company boasted – erroneously – that they had produced the world’s very first solid (Belgian) chocolate egg, weighing 750gm and retailing at £24.99.

 

Image result for Fry's chocolate  eggs

 

For more European translations of ‘egg’ and their etymologies:

https://www.reddit.com/r/etymologymaps/comments/5umohl/etymology_map_for_the_word_egg_in_european/

 

 

 

 

IN ONE BASKET – OF THE EGG, AT EASTER

 

Image result for egg slang

 

I have been, all too predictably, seasonally, thinking about the egg, its role in the imminent Easter festivities which will be the subject of the next post, but also reexamining the little word itself, so commonplace, so rarely considered.

Image result for easter humpty dumpty

I’ll look at its etymology in the next post, too, but not surprisingly the egg has featured in English slang, at least since the first recorded attestations in the 16th century, but its various slang senses, until very recently, have been disappointingly obvious and unengaging.

The main senses and sub-senses of slang egg can be listed as follows, roughly in order of chronological record, and also in rough order of frequency of use (examples of these usages are listed by my fellow slang specialist and sometime collaborator, Jonathon Green, in his monumental Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

1.

  • From its physical resemblance, (ovoid, containing viscous fluid, a seed of life): Testicle 
  • From its resemblance, (ovoid, hard surface, hollow, precious content): Head
  • From resemblance, (hollow container): Bomb
  • From resemblance, (hollow container or roughly oval pellet): Capsule, Tablet (of an illicit substance)

2.

  • By extension, from the notion of a unit, organism (heard in the obsolescent expressions in ‘posh’ British English ‘a good egg/bad egg’): Person
  • Specified, perhaps with reference to simple form (in New Zealand slang this is a common insult, though some claim it is inspired by d. below): Fool
  • Further specified, perhaps with added reference to fragility: Dupe
  • Clipped form of the colloquial expression denoting an individual with overdeveloped brain-function/intellectual prowess: Egghead

Related image

 

So far, so unexciting. More recently, though, the same word has been adopted for new purposes, encoding fresh and interesting ideas. These, in no particular order, are:

  1. A transgender person who hasn’t yet embraced or revealed their identity. The usage plays on the notion of ‘a chick or a cock on the inside’. In August 2017 ‘happycookie’ posted the following on the Urban Dictionary website:

     ‘…If they’re unsure whether they want to transition they’re a scrambled egg. If they                    supposedly really dislike transgender people but still constantly talk about them                    they’re a hard-boiled egg’

          The term can also apply to someone who has newly acknowledged their identity,                or recently transgendered, by analogy with ‘newly hatched’.

 

  1. A white person who wishes to be or pretends to be ‘Asian’ (in the American sense of Japanese, Chinese, etc., formerly denoted by ‘oriental’). Urban Dictionary has a first and only mention from 2003, explaining that such a person is ‘white on the outside, yellow on the inside’. But there’s more here:

 

  1. An anonymous online troll, typically using the Twitter social network. In April 2017 Twitter stopped using the egg-shaped blank as its default avatar and substituted a gender-neutral silhouette, saying that it wished to ‘prompt more self-expression’ but more probably as the word egg had come to signify a malicious, anonymous user, typically male, who harassed other accounts, typically not anonymous and female. Twitter egg had also been used since 2010 as an insult directed at users who retained the egg default because they were too inept to create their own profile picture.

 

  1. In texting abbreviation and acronyms capitalised EGG has been used for ‘Enlightened Grammar Geek’, ‘Exceedingly Great Grooves’, and by gamers for ‘Elemental Gimmick Gear’

 

  1. An Easter egg in the jargon of computing, videogaming and video production is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or a secret feature, planted inside a computer program, video game, menu screen or electronic device, for instance, or only accessible by secret commands. The usage derives from having to search for hidden prizes on a traditional Easter egg hunt.

 

Image result for easter egg hunt

 

  1. To egg (someone) as a verb is not really slang, but an informal term, originating in British usage, for flinging eggs at a victim, typically as a way of expressing contempt for a public figure. (I’ll deal with the phrase ‘to egg (someone) on’ in the next post.)

 

  1. The adjective eggy, sometimes eggsy, meaning nervous, agitated or moody, or peculiar, irritating or hostile, heard in US and British slang since the 1980s, is of uncertain origin. It may not be related to eggs, but be an adaptation of the colloquial ‘edgy’ or (putting someone) ‘on edge’.

 

  1. As adjective eggy can mean also excellent, of which it may be a playful distortion, in UK playground slang, since the 1990s.

Image result for egg emoji

  1. In multiethnic British street slang eggs-up can mean intrusive, too curious or nosy. It probably comes from Jamaican ‘patois’ where it can also describe showing off or taking advantage of another person. The connection with actual eggs, if there is one, is unclear.

 

  1. While on the same subject, Jamaican English often pronounces the word as ‘hegg’, while in Irish slang a yoke is an unnamed object. There must be other senses of the e-word in popular conversation and online use, as yet unrecorded. If you know of any, please do send them to me (and you will be thanked and credited in any future writings).

 

 

Image result for egg slang

 

SUPERSTITIOUS? – Good luck with that

FINGERS CROSSED

Non e vero ma ci credo (‘It’s not true but I still believe in it’) – Italian saying

 

As the light fades and the creatures of the night gather for another Hallowe’en festival, prepare your candies and cookies to placate the witch, the vampire and the ghoul, but spare a thought, too for their sinister companions. Those cats, bats, owls and spiders are traditional symbols of misfortune in their own right and part of an ancient system of beliefs that still persists in the popular imagination all across our continent. If a black cat crosses your path in any part of mainland Europe (apart, oddly, from Normandy where tortoiseshells are feared), you must expect bad luck to follow. Only in Great Britain is the opposite thought to be true. The cat’s power for good or ill is said by some to derive from the fact that in Ancient Egypt it was sacred; others more convincingly point to its role as the European witch’s familiar in mediaeval times. The bones of bats are carried as protection against evil in Greece, though, awkwardly, in that country killing a bat will put a curse on the perpetrator. Spiders are lucky in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, in Finland if you kill one it will rain the next day. In Slovenia spiders are only unlucky on Monday mornings. As for the night-haunting owl, for centuries an omen of doom, according to French superstition, if a woman catches sight of one during her pregnancy, she is guaranteed to give birth to a girl. Each hoot of the owl, a Welsh tradition maintains, marks a local girl losing her virginity.

Inanimate objects of course can also figure in superstitious beliefs. Horseshoes are hung above the doorway in Britain and France for protection, though in the former they open upwards to contain the luck, in the latter they point downwards to decant the luck on those passing through. Breaking a mirror – symbolising not just one’s image but one’s soul – is everywhere regarded as highly unfortunate. (The seven years bad luck it is said to bring was probably how long it took to find the money to replace such an expensive item three or four hundred years ago). In the same way touching or knocking on wood, perhaps a hangover from pagan tree-hugging or clutching religious relics, wards off evil, while sneezing must be accompanied by a blessing and spitting and throwing salt over your (in most cultures, left) shoulder will keep malignant spirits at bay.

Other beliefs are particular to one nation, and pretty peculiar, too. In Turkey you mustn’t chew chewing gum at night as it will have turned into the flesh of the dead. Italians think seeing a nun is unlucky, Ukrainians a priest, but only before midday. Germans dread seeing old ladies in the morning; in Iceland knitting on the doorstep prolongs the winter, while in Norway knitting your boyfriend a sweater will drive him into the arms of another. In Belgium picking poppies attracts lightning, Danes throw broken dishes at their neighbours at New Year, in Holland you mustn’t sing at the dinner table. In the UK hearing a cuckoo before breakfast used to signal bad luck all that day; hearing it while resting in your bed could be fatal. Avoid bird droppings on your shoulder at all costs if you are Lithuanian, otherwise they are lucky – and in Spain never put a hat on a bed, unless you are a priest administering the last rites.

Many of the theories put forward to explain superstitions are as comically far-fetched as the beliefs themselves. The idea that opening an umbrella indoors is unlucky, it is claimed, comes either from the fact that Christians disapproved of hieroglyphics showing Pharaoh’s sunshade or from the shape it makes which symbolises a broken roof. We may prefer to think that opening huge Victorian umbrellas could easily put out an eye if done in enclosed and crowded spaces – even today’s telescopic versions can take us by surprise. Walking under ladders is almost universally advised against (Russia is apparently the exception), on the grounds that the ladder leaning against a wall represents the gallows, the Holy Trinity or even – the appeal to Ancient Egypt again – the malign power of the pyramid. Sceptics point to the more prosaic possibility of a paint pot, a painter or even the thing itself falling onto one’s head. Coincidentally or not, ladder-carrying chimney sweeps are thought to be lucky in many European countries: in the UK seeing one on your wedding day guarantees lasting happiness while in Germany a model of a sweep fixed to the roof as a weather vane brings good fortune to the household beneath. If you search the internet for an explanation you will be told that William the Conqueror permitted sweeps to wear top hats (William reigned from 1066!), that George II of England – some accounts have George III – invited a sweep to his wedding after he calmed a ferocious dog, or that an unnamed woman saved a falling sweep who gratefully proposed marriage and was accepted. To modern eyes neither the dirty, underpaid sweeps of yesteryear nor their hapless assistants, the ‘climbing boys’ as young as seven who cleaned inside tall chimneys, appear very fortunate. A more subtle explanation would be that the sweep was associated with the hearth, the focus of the family, and with coal which the Roma among others considered a sign of wealth. The last word, though, must go to a present-day German chimney sweep, Heiko Kirmis: they bring good fortune

“because they prevent fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Three centuries ago the philosopher Voltaire was a famous disapprover, opining that “superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy: the mad daughter of a wise mother.”
But whether or not superstitions make sense is really not the point, says Parisian musician Justin Chambord. “They add a sense of enchantment, a tinge of magic to everyday life. Negotiating all the banal frustrations of a typical day becomes a sort of adventure when you are dodging ladders, crossing your fingers, knocking on wood and fingering your St Christopher medallion.” For retired Slovenian manager Petra Mlakar, though, the colourful folklore of which superstitions are a part is a hangover from a primitive past with no relevance to modern realities. “Our parents’ and grandparents’ lives were ruled by dozens, if not hundreds of superstitions but almost nobody remembers them now.” Certainly beliefs change: the fireflies which flicker at the edge of Slovene forests in early summer used to be feared as they were thought to be the souls of dead relatives. Nowadays, for teenagers at least, they signify luck in romantic relationships.

The commonsense explanation of superstitions is that they date from a time when most humans were at the mercy of their environment. In pre-modern peasant societies the average fearful person was a helpless victim of the seasons, prey to natural disasters, disease, random persecution by the rich and powerful – not to mention witches, ghosts and demons. One’s destiny was not under one’s control and an appeal to the supernatural was the only solution.

But for citizens of the ultra-complex, accelerated societies of today, struggling with modern technology, information overload and economic uncertainty, anxiety levels are, or are perceived to be, at an all-time high, while our own ability to influence the wider world is still in doubt. Real and irrational fears persist and the OCD-like behaviour that they trigger mean that many of us still reach for magical remedies, whether we truly believe in them or not. Surveys show an astonishingly high level of superstitious behaviour – in one 86% of respondents confessed to some sort of private ritual or wish-fulfilment act, while 15% of trained scientists admitted to a fear of the number 13.

Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that superstitious behaviour is linked to high levels of anxiety, but some, slightly less predictably, have suggested that ‘magical’ rituals work, others that superstitious people are actually more fortunate. Research has confirmed what we know: that sportsmen and women and students, with their mascots, lucky socks and pre-performance rituals are particularly prone to superstition. Both groups are of course engaged in high-stakes activities where luck can sometimes make all the difference.

In a 2003 study by the British Association for the Advancement of Science the aptly named Professor Richard Wiseman found that people used superstition to manufacture their own luck, but that this could be good or bad depending on their attitude. Those who followed practices thought to create good luck – touching wood and crossing fingers, for instance – actually experienced it while those who believed in unlucky numbers, broken mirrors and open umbrellas were measurably less lucky in their lives. A 2010 survey by the University of Cologne in Germany found that subjects could be persuaded that a random ‘lucky’ object, a ball for instance, would help them and this then significantly improved their performance in tasks involving memory and motor skills. Reliance on the completely spurious ‘charm’ boosted concentration and confidence in individuals and teams allowed to keep their charms scored better than teams denied them.

When you stop and think about it, though, it really is rather unlikely that wearing lucky underpants to an interview (in Serbia they must be worn inside-out) is going to land you the job. Nor is it objectively probable that avoiding the cracks between the paving stones or putting shoes on in the right order is going to result in a successful day, that kissing the fuselage before takeoff or choosing a special seat number on the plane will make your journey any safer. How can Friday 13th be unlucky for some nationalities while for Spaniards and Greeks it’s Tuesday 13th, for Italians the 17th? Why on earth should wearing green bring misfortune, yet wearing polka dots on New Year’s Day (as some French ladies assert) have the opposite effect?

However rational we try to be, the urge to exert some control over our little corner of the universe by any means possible can be irresistible. Why tempt fate? Better to be on the safe side and keep your rabbit’s foot keyring with you, even though no-one has ever explained that particular choice of charm. Search for a four-leaf clover (if Polish you will eat it when you find it), or you can always buy one online for around $25. After all, in the words of US author Judith Viorst, “Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational – but how much does it cost you to knock on wood?”

 

Don’t you know it’s bad luck to be superstitious?

Thank your lucky stars if you aren’t!

Image result for superstitious

 

A version of this article first appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine

On the origin of the s-word itself:

“Superstition”: an unlucky etymology?